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The Book Blog

07/15/2024
profile-icon Brenda Hoffman

Percival Everett's James – The Brooklyn Rail

 

 

In an interview following the release of his brilliant James, Percival Everett reimagined Mark Twain’s quote about heaven and hellTwain once quipped: “Heaven for the climate; hell for the company.” Everett, showing off his love and respect for Twain said: “Heaven for the climate; hell for my long-awaited lunch with Mark Twain.” Everett, in 2023, wrote a love letter to Twain with James, a re-telling of Huck Finn where Jim is the central character and narrator. The book is difficult to summarize, but I’m gonna try. As in Huck, Jim realizes that he is going to be sold away from his family and endure a harsh(er) owner, so he decides to run. His hope is to earn some money up North and buy his family. Huckleberry wants to run, too, to escape his mean and abusive Pap. Along the way on the Mississippi, the two runaways have “adventures,” that are dissimilar to the original tale. Huck leaves Jim’s story early in Everett’s version, and James negotiates the South managing to avoid death through stealth and smarts. There are several reveals that I won’t share because they are amazing, especially if you are familiar with the original story. 

Did you know how popular Huck Finn was in the past and is today? Published in March of 1884, by May of 1885 it had sold over 57,000 copies. Pretty darn good for the time. A google search revealed asking prices of $10,000.00 for leather-bound first editions. Did you also know that Huck Finn has been challenged by parents (because of the N-word) in various school districts every year since the novel became required reading in English classes? A publisher in Alabama revised Twain’s masterpiece to placate the uncomfortable masses. I wish Twain were alive to tell that publisher what it can do with its perverted version. 

In 2011 on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore discussed New South Book Publishing replacing the N-word with what Wilmore jokingly referred to as a “promotion” for Jim: “Slave,” citing teachers’ discomfort with reading the novel where Twain wrote 219 instances of the N-word. Wilmore decried the decision saying that eventually the Jim character might be removed completely. And a 1950s movie did just that! Here’s the exchange between Stewart and Wilmore. Remember that “The Daily Show” often employs satire to make a point: 

STEWART: You know what, you're very passionate in your defense of the character Jim. 

WILMORE: I have to be, Jon, otherwise they'd take the brother out of the book completely. 

STEWART: Well, I don't think they'd take him out.... 

WILMORE: No, believe me, they already tried.  They made a TV movie version in the 1950s that did away with the Jim character completely! 

Huck Finn 1955 TV Movie. Where's Jim? 

WILMORE: Look, that's just Dennis the Menace on a raft!  What the [#@%*], 1950s? 

Too bad that Twain’s works are in public domain, because replacing the word commonly used to describe Black people in 1884 when Huck was published would have the author rolling in his grave.   

Here are some other notable ideas about Huck

  1. 14: Number of films and/or television shows based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 
  2. 3: Number of those films and/or television shows that eliminated the Jim character. 
  3. And now, as far as I know, 1: Version where Jim is the narrator and protagonist. 

Everett wrote James, a reimagining of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to give Jim, er, James, a voice. And what a voice James possesses and uses with aplomb…but not in front of white folk.  

James starts out similarly enough to Twain’s Huck, but I knew I was in for a true adventure when James tutors his children in code switching—the ways in which a member of an underrepresented group (consciously or unconsciously) adjusts their language, syntax, grammatical structure, behavior, and appearance to fit into the dominant culture—to hide James and his family’s education. James steals, er, borrows books from Judge Thatcher’s library and learns to read and write. But demonstrating those skills will get them killed; hence, the lessons in hiding one’s education.  

Everett also takes a swipe at James’ owner’s hypocritical religiousness. When Rachel, James’ daughter, asks “’Why did God set [slavery] up like this? “With them as masters and us as slaves?’” James’ answer is brilliant:  

“There is no God, child. There’s religion but there’s no God of theirs. Their religion tells that we will get our reward in the end. However, it apparently doesn’t say anything about their punishment. But when we’re around them, we believe in God. Oh, Lawdy Lawd, we’s be believin.’ Religion is just a controlling tool they employ to adhere to when convenient.” 

How refreshing it was for this reader to discover an alternate portrayal of how slaves might’ve felt about a god who created a program that forced on them “grueling labor” where “enslaved men and women were beaten mercilessly, separated from loved ones arbitrarily, and, regardless of sex, treated as property in the eyes of the law.” Oxford University graduate Noel Rae outlines Christians' justification for slavery in The Great Stain (2018). She cites two sections, from both the Old and New Testaments, of The King James Bible that slaveowners often referred to claiming the right to own and oppress human beings. You can read the text from KJV here: Genesis IX, 18-27 and Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, VI, 5-7. And famous orator and author of the speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass was taught the alphabet, some simple words, and eventually the bible by his owner, Sophia Auld. He also taught other slaves to read the New Testament. But when he was fed up with fruitlessly praying for freedom, Douglass famously asserted: “I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Douglass ran. I wonder if he, akin to James, saw the perverted double standard laid out in the good book when prayers were ignored.

Everett's title character doesn't find solace in the bible; it is with philosophers that James' ideas are challenged. After James is bitten by a snake, he has fever dreams where the reader is privy to his conversations with Voltaire, Locke, and Rousseau. Voltaire enters his sleep and reminds James of the Candide character Cunegonde, who is a “symbol for the futility of human desires.” Did I know this reference before consulting Google? Heck, no! But what a lovely little Easter egg! Is Voltaire warning Jim to stay where he is and be sold off to the highest bidder because his own “human desires” are futile? That’s what I gleaned from the dream. In another dream James and John Locke discuss the hypocrisy of the [U. S] constitution that justified slavery.

Everett also plays with the original narrative in clever ways that show off his erudition. Huck looks to James for advice and genuinely cares for him. James genuinely cares for Huck, but for different and surprising reasons that I’ll leave out here. When James cries out in his dreams in a standard dialect that confounds Huck’s understanding of who Jim is, he presses him for answers: 

"Jim," Huck said.

 

"What?"

"Why you talkin’ so funny?"

"Whatchu be meanin'?" I was panicking inside.

"You were talkin'—I don't know—you didn't sound like no slave."

 

James can’t reveal the truth of his ability to speak standard English, to read, and write to Huck, even though he obviously loves James saying, as he does in the original text, that “I’ll go to Hell, then!” when he realizes that not turning James in will surely be against his religion. It is through James that Huck, as in the original text, discovers his humanity. 

The novel is filled with arcane, beautiful, and deft allusions. If you’ve read Richard Wright’s Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth, you might notice another connection when Miss Watson asks Jim if he was in Judge Thatcher’s library room because some books were off the shelves. Jim laughs and employs the code switching he teaches his children, “What I gone do wif a book?” In the same way, Wright worked for a man who often sent him with a list of books to check out of the library. Wright—who was self-taught to read and write despite his grandmother who burned any book he brought into the house that wasn’t the bible—would add titles to the man’s list and head to the “Whites Only” library. Noticing the difference in handwriting on the list, the librarian accused him of adding the titles for himself to which Wright replied, “I don’t know [why the titles at the end are in another handwriting]. I can’t read.” Another clever Easter egg…if, dear reader, you can find it hidden amongst Everett’s astute prose.  

The book has other interesting changes, too. Because Huck disappears early in James, his absence allows Jim to become James. In a repugnant reminder of the price of knowledge, an enslaved man is lynched when his master realizes that the man stole a pencil for Jim to write in a notebook that he stole from Huck’s deadbeat, abusive dad. And in a comic/satiric turn, Jim is bought by the Virginia Minstrels, a blackface singing troupe, which counts as a member Howard who is an enslaved man passing as White. No Black man can be on stage, so they cover Jim in blackface. Huh? You ask. James explains the ludicrousness: “one Black man passing for white and painted black, and me, a light brown, Black man painted black in such a way as to appear like a white man trying to pass for Black.” The troupe heard James singing and his tenor voice was magical, so they slapped white, then black shoe polish on his black face and fooled white audiences. James performs only one time before he and Howard take off in the middle of the night. 

You don’t need to read Twain’s novel to appreciate Everett’s take on the classic novel. And like Larry Wilmore who is passionate about the Jim character in Twain’s Huck Finn, Everett is passionate about providing James with a voice, an identity, a life. And I'd like to be a fly on the wall at Twain and Everett's “long-awaited lunch." And like Huck, “I’ll go to hell” to witness it!

Watch for Everett’s James to come to a movie theater near you with Stephen Spielberg to executive produce and Taika Waititi to direct. 

A person sitting on a chair with two dogs

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Percival Everett with pups Harry and Banjo 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Subjects
featured-image-139800
07/08/2024
profile-icon Dr. Brittnee Fisher

The icing on the cake of this fantastic book is the acknowledgments section at the end. In this portion of the book, LaValle recounts how his story came to be. Like me, he buys books about local histories during his trips. While visiting the University of Montana in Missoula, he picked up a copy of Dr. Sarah Carter’s work Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s OwnDiscovering that there had been lone women homesteaders, free of husbands who were not necessarily white, blew his mind. His subsequent obsession with learning more inspired the fictional tale of the Lone Women homesteaders in his book. We love a story inspired by actual history…especially one that is little known! 

Technically, this is a horror story. And before you ask, yes, there is some gore. But tell me why I found myself tearing up at the end. Feeling feelings ranging from rage to hope. Sadness to joy. Fear to awe.  This is honestly one of the most subtly brilliant books I’ve read. And darn this man for writing an empathetic tale about the female experience. This was just a good book. Read it!

I wasn’t sure I’d like it when I started this one. It’s told from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl named Elsa. As you can imagine, she’s an advanced child for her age, which isn’t helping her connect socially with her peers at school. Her best friend is her kooky grandmother, who tells her vivid fairytales in a secret language that they only share. Unfortunately for Elsa, her grandmother dies at the beginning of this story. Through a series of apology letters, Elsa’s grandmother reveals the truth behind the fictional stories and introduces Elsa to a new reality. Have the tissues ready for this one. 

This was a pleasant surprise. I picked it up because I’ve been gravitating toward horror a lot lately. I can get really lost in a good horror book- I find them highly entertaining. This book was a bit more complex than the “good old-fashioned ghost story” I was expecting. I’d describe this as a fable about addiction and grief told through a thrilling ghost story. It was unexpected, and I couldn’t predict many of the twists and turns throughout the book, which was nice. I did find all the characters unlikeable, but that ends up playing into the plot. So, stick with it until the end to find out why! 

I’ve been interested in John Dillinger for as long as I can remember. The hit movie Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp, gave his lore a resurgence in popular culture around 2009 when it was released. He was again in the news in 2019 when his niece and nephew planned to exhume his body, citing evidence that they may have killed the wrong man in Chicago back in 1934. 

I recognize that Dillinger’s actions were wrong, but he was charismatic! While the movie takes some artistic liberties with his love life and lore, the book confirms that Dillinger was well-loved and admired throughout his “career” in crime. 

If you are interested in true crime, bank robbery, or the likes of “Bonnie & Clyde”, “Machine Gun Kelly”, or “Baby Face Nelson” then you’ll love this read! 

Recently, a few people recommended Barbara Kingsolver's books to me. I’ve never read her, but I figured it was time- the universe sometimes decides where my reading will go next! After reviewing a few of her book descriptions, I decided on her book Animal Dreams over some of her more popular titles, such as The Poisonwood Bible and Demon Copperhead. I was drawn to this title because I love a “woman finally finds herself” story, and the Goodreads reviews supported this notion. 

Upon completion, I think this story was good. Kingsolver uses flashbacks, dreams, legends, and the characters’ current narratives to build something beautiful. Her description of the natural beauty of Arizona made me want to catch a flight there soon. 

I will be reading more books by this author. I’ll probably pick up another title by Kingsolver to get lost in on a beautiful Florida beach day. 

This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand women’s health better. I certainly wish I had a copy of this book starting around age 12 to carry with me through life. You could read this cover to cover or use it like a reference book. It’s full of helpful health (not “wellness”) tips and great recipe ideas! 

No Subjects
07/03/2024
profile-icon Andrew Macfarlane---SJR State College

Good afternoon everyone, everyone good afternoon!

The book I have chosen to discuss this week means a lot to me. Whenever anyone asks me about a book that impacted my thinking, this book is my answer. Please enjoy my brief description, and if you decide to read this book, you will be rewarded with quite a story.

"Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn is a philosophical novel that explores the relationship between humans and the natural world through a unique narrative framework. The story centers on a disillusioned narrator who responds to an ad from a teacher seeking a pupil interested in saving the world. This leads him to Ishmael, a telepathic gorilla who becomes his mentor. (I know that is a bit of a stretch, but rewarding if you can stay with it!)

Ishmael divides human societies into two categories: the "Takers" and the "Leavers." The Takers represent modern, industrialized societies that exploit the environment, while the Leavers are traditional societies that live in harmony with nature. Through their dialogues, Ishmael challenges the narrator to reconsider the common assumptions about civilization, progress, and human destiny.

A central theme is the Takers' cultural mythology, which began with the Agricultural Revolution. This mythology promotes the idea that humans are the pinnacle of evolution and have the right to dominate the earth. Ishmael argues that this mindset leads to environmental destruction and the potential collapse of human civilization.

Ishmael also introduces the concept of "Mother Culture," an invisible force shaping beliefs and behaviors within Taker society. This narrative perpetuates the false notion that human well-being is separate from the well-being of the planet. Ishmael highlights the interconnectedness of all life and the need for a new cultural mythology that respects the natural world. Ishmael also delves into how organized religion has played a role in our culture.

Ultimately, "Ishmael" challenges readers to question their cultural assumptions and consider the ethical implications of their relationship with the environment. The novel advocates for sustainable, ecological principles and a rejection of exploitative practices, encouraging a deeper reflection on humanity's place in the world and the choices shaping our future.

 

IshmaelIshmael by Daniel Quinn; D. Quinn; BookSource Staff (Compiled by)

ISBN: 9780613080934
Publication Date: 1995-05-01